Maguindanao massacre: Families hope for justice as verdict looms

Philippine court to announce verdict in 2009 Maguindanao massacre case in which 58 people were killed.

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    Ten years after the bloodbath, a court is expected to announce its verdict next month in one of the deadliest political massacres [File: Noel Celis/AFP]
    Ten years after the bloodbath, a court is expected to announce its verdict next month in one of the deadliest political massacres [File: Noel Celis/AFP]

    Manila, Philippines - Mary Grace Morales's long wait for justice is about to end as a Philippine court is set to announce the verdict next month in the massacre of 58 people, including 32 journalists, 10 years ago.

    Morales's husband and sister, Marites Cablitas, were among those killed on November 23, 2009, in one of the deadliest instances of political violence in the Southeast Asian nation.

    Morales loves to recall how her husband loved to play the guitar and sing songs with their three daughters. "He used to have a band back in the day and he was a really good singer," she said.

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    It did not surprise her when their 18-year-old daughter, Faye, decided to compose a song to remember her father. The title of the song is Justice.

    Thirty-two of the slain were journalists and media workers who were part of a convoy led by the wife of Esmael Mangudadatu, a congressman who was running for governor of a southern Maguindanao province.

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    The group of 58 were going to file Mangudadatu's gubernatorial candidacy against Andal Ampatuan Jr, whose family is a prominent Muslim political clan.

    The convoy was allegedly kidnapped by 100 of Ampatuan's henchmen armed with assault rifles. The victims were brought to a hilltop where they were killed and their bodies buried in shallow graves.

    "My wife was shot 17 times. They shot her breasts, her private part. I cannot just forget that," said Mangudadatu, who also lost his siblings in the massacre.

    'Convoy found. All dead'

    The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) described the killing as the single deadliest event for journalists in history. Last year, the International Federation of Journalists listed the Philippines as the deadliest peacetime country for journalists in Southeast Asia.

    Nonoy Espina was supposed to be one of the journalists covering Mangudadatu's filing for candidacy but held back at the last minute because of the flu. "It's been 10 years, but personally, for me, it seems like yesterday," said Espina who is the president of the National Union of Journalist of Philippines (NUJP).

    "Days before, word was going around that Mangudadatu's rivals were threatening to chop him to pieces. We were expecting maybe a gunfight. The first text I got said that the convoy was missing. The second text read: 'Convoy found. All dead.' I can still remember how I felt my knees go weak," Espina added.

    Andal Ampatuan Jr.
    Andal Ampatuan Jr, centre, and his family have been implicated in the massacre [File: Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters]

    After the 2009 massacre, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report that implicated the Ampatuan family in more than 50 incidents of abduction, murder and torture which included the brutal killing by chainsaw of people suspected to be involved in a bomb attack against the Ampatuan family.

    According to the report, the family rose to power using violence to expand their control and eliminate political rivals and threats.

    About 100 people have been arrested and then all of them charged with murder, including members of the Ampatuan clan, brothers Zaldy and Datu Unsay, the alleged mastermind of the massacre. More than 80 are at large. Their father, Andal Ampatuan Sr, was also arrested but died in jail in 2015.

    No one has been convicted.

    Threats and intimidation 

    The case has dragged on for 10 years, has gone through at least 17 lawyers and more than 400 witnesses presented by both sides.

    "We believe we have presented enough witnesses and evidence to prove the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt," said Nena Santos, Mangudadatu's lawyer.

    Santos said she has received her share of death threats and intimidation since she has taken on the case. "You name it, I've had it," she said. "The worst was at 4:30am when I received a text message saying that the person who will kill me was already in my house. I responded by asking, 'Which house?'"

    The families of the slain have not been spared from acts of intimidation. Emily Lopez, president of the Justice Now Movement, the group of families of media practitioners who were killed, said she once received a photo message of a calibre 45 pistol on her phone on her birthday. "There was no name, no message, just the 45. It was a suspicious coincidence that it was sent on my birthday."

    Maguindanao massacre
     Anger over the slow pace of the legal process has provoked protests over the years [File: Romeo Ranoco/Reuters]

    Lopez said that veiled threats like this made it difficult to organise the families and convince them to push the case forward. Now that the court is set to release a decision, she and the other family members are happy but also anxious.

    "We expect a conviction on the 58 counts of murder. But what kind of verdict - it may not be commensurate to the crime. What if it's a verdict of 10-15 years only, a verdict for the sake of so-called justice. We will not accept that," Lopez said.

    In the Philippines, where there is no death penalty, the maximum sentence for murder is life imprisonment.

    Lopez said that the verdict expected next month will bring families like them healing but it is not the end of the pursuit of justice.

    "There are still about 80 suspects who remain at large. This is going to be a long fight but with the verdict next month, we will hopefully have a better chance to bring the others to justice," said Lopez.

    Al Jazeera reached out to Laguatan Law Office representing the Ampatuans but received no response until the time of the publication.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News